HR Leadership Column Matter

To be successful in almost any endeavor, you have to build relationships and really know who your colleagues are and what they expect from you. You also need to understand what you can expect from them.

Monday, March 18, 2013
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When I first became a manager, I received some feedback that probably changed the course of my career. Through a 360-degree assessment tool, used as part of my professional development, I learned that I was perceived as "very smart," but "cool," "reserved" and sometimes "aloof." 

At the time, I was devastated. I thought I was viewed as a team player who operated in a business-like fashion, avoiding office drama and getting results. I had no idea that some of my colleagues felt I could be "cool" and "aloof."  In other words, I wasn't seen as very friendly, and it was negatively impacting my business relationships. 

I've been reflecting on this lesson recently, as I watched three seemingly distinct stories developing in the news.

The first news story was about the decision by Yahoo!'s CEO, Marissa Mayer to end the company's policy of allowing employees to work from home; by this June, all employees are expected to work from a Yahoo! facility. (While Best Buy also discontinued its Results Only Work Environment, or ROWE, it didn't get nearly the same amount of coverage -- probably because its CEO isn't an attractive female and new mother. But, that's another column entirely . . .  .)

The second story was about how, in the ongoing saga that is Washington politics, President Obama began what the media has described as a "charm offensive." He's been reaching out to members of the House and Senate to try to resolve the stalemate created by strongly held and opposing views on how to get our nation's fiscal house in order. 

The third story was about the election of Pope Francis, and how 117 members of the College of Cardinals came together to elect a new pope. 

What is the common thread that connects these stories and my early-career feedback?

The common thread is the importance of relationships -- people having a connection to each other. To be successful, you have to build relationships and really know who your colleagues are and what they expect from you. You also need to understand what you can expect from them.   

At Yahoo!, Mayer didn't just ban work from home. She's implemented a number of policies, such as free food and smartphones for employees, in her effort to drive a change in corporate culture; it's an "all hands on deck" strategy. In explaining the new policy against working at home, Yahoo! stated that "communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side," and that some of the "best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people and impromptu team meetings."    

In other words, Yahoo is trying to better develop and leverage relationships across the enterprise to help it refocus the business, with these relationships driving better decisions and insights. For now, one way it's doing this is by requiring employees to physically be working side-by-side. 

Just as Yahoo is trying to develop and leverage its employees' relationships, President Obama is trying to do the same with legislators.  He launched a "charm offensive" in Washington, holding a series of back-to-back meetings with members of Congress at the White House and on Capitol Hill. While many of his critics -- and some supporters -- worry that his failure to "schmooze" earlier in his administration may impede his progress, this new tactic reflects the president's recognition that relationships in Washington matter; they are the oil that makes the gears work in the legislative process. That's why he's taking new steps to learn more about individual members of Congress, understand what they expect from him and know what he can expect from them.

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Relationships even matter in the election of a new pope. If you were to predict who had the greatest chance of being elected by colleagues scattered around the world, who would it be? It would be the person who was best known by his colleagues -- and one from whom they'll know what to expect and what will be expected from them. 

In my case, my early career feedback helped me learn that, while I had been raised to mind my own business and never talk about myself, I modeled this behavior at work in a way that made people think I didn't care about them and their personal lives, and didn't think they needed to know anything about me.  This meant my relationships were superficial and, when I became more open about my own life, and inquired into my colleagues' lives, I was able to develop much more rewarding -- and effective -- relationships at work. 

This lesson has served me well, and I've been able to build great working relationships over my career -- relationships that made it possible to build a successful organization.

So my question to you is this: How are your relationships at work? Have you taken the time to really know who your colleagues are? Do you really know what they expect from you? Do you understand what you can expect from them?  It all matters.

Susan R. Meisinger, former president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, is an author, speaker and consultant on human resource management. She is on the board of directors of the National Academy of Human Resources.

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